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Packaging can be defined as materials used for the containment, protection, handling, delivery, and presentation of goods. Packaging can be divided into three broad categories:
  • Primary packaging is the wrapping or containers handled by the consumer.
  • Secondary packaging is the term used to describe larger cases or boxes that are used to group quantities of primary packaged goods for distribution and for display in shops.
  • Transit packaging refers to the wooden pallets, board and plastic wrapping and containers that are used to collate the groups into larger loads for transport, which facilitates loading and unloading of goods.


Because of its large volume, packaging waste tends to be very visible. Approximately 70% of primary packaging is used for food and drink which is often discarded in a dirty state and contaminated by residues of the original contents.

The UK produced an estimated 9.3 million tonnes of waste packaging in 2001. Of this 5.1 million tonnes came from households and the remaining 4.2 million tonnes from commercial and industrial sources. Paper and board are the most widely used packaging materials in terms of weight.

Paper and board account for 43% by weight of all packaging and are used to pack 25% of all goods.Paper and board packaging make up 6.4% of the overall content of the typical household dustbin. For further information on paper and cardboard recycling see Waste Watch's Paper information sheet.Plastic packaging accounts for 20% of the weight of all packaging and 53% of all goods are packaged in plastics.

Because of its low weight and relative strength, plastic is one of the most energy efficient, robust and economic delivery methods available.Even though plastics can be recycled, there are fewer recycling collection facilities than for other types of packaging waste and only 23% of plastics packaging waste was recycled in the UK in 2001.

This is partially because plastic has a high volume to weight ratio, which can make recycling collections of plastic packaging waste less efficient than the collection of other recyclables which weigh more. Plastic also has a high calorific content, which allows energy recovery methods to be utilised efficiently if recycling is not possible.

The lack of end-markets for mixed and single stream plastics also forms a barrier to increased plastics recycling. Recycled plastics can be used for a variety of products, such as garden furniture, flower pots and containers, fibres and new packaging materials.

For further information on plastic recycling see Waste Watch's Plastics information sheet.Glass accounts for 20% of the weight of all packaging and 10% of all goods are packaged in glass.Glass can be recycled easily, and well established collection and recycling systems exist in the UK.

The first bottle banks appeared in 1977, and there are now roughly 50,000 on some 20000sites around the country, usually located at civic amenity sites and supermarkets. Seven billion glass containers were produced in the UK in 2003 and the recycling rate has remained relatively constant at approximately 33% since 2000. This contrasts with much higher recycling rates of 80-90% achieved by other European countries.

The reason these countries recover more glass for recycling is that they have a much more developed collection infrastructure. For further information on glass recycling see Waste Watch's Glass information sheet.Aluminium is used packaging applications such as beverage and food cans, foils and laminates.

It has a high value as a scrap metal and can be recycled economically. An estimated five billion aluminium cans were used in the UK in 2001, 42% of which were recycled. The total recycling rate for all types of aluminium (including aluminium foil, food trays, etc.) was 24% in 2002.

For further information on aluminium recycling see Waste Watch's Metals information sheet.Steel containers are used to package a wide range of products, including food, paint and beverages as well as aerosols. In the UK, thirteen billion steel cans are produced each year.

Up to a quarter of new steel cans - more than three billion cans - are made from recycled steel. It is relatively easy to separate through magnetic extraction, making it the world's most commonly recycled material. The recycling rate for steel packaging, including transport packaging, such as steel drums and bale wire, was 42% in 2002.

For further information on steel recycling see Waste Watch's Metals information sheet.Mixed material packaging can in some cases have the benefits of being more resource and energy efficient than single material packaging, but combining materials makes recycling difficult.

An example of this type of packaging is 'Tetra Pak' which typically consists of 75% paper, 20% polyethylene and 5% aluminium foil. Although many beverages are sold in this type of packaging, there is currently only one facility to recycle these in Fife, Scotland. There is potential to reprocess mixed materials packaging into other products such as floor coverings, shoe soles and car mats.

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